Productive labor and the Duhem-Quine Thesis (fwd)

Lulu of the Lotus-Eaters quilty at
Wed Jan 4 10:27:03 MST 1995

Chris Burford recently commented kindly on my divergent interests in
chaos and Althusser.  I must admit I was puzzled (although I *do* have
interests in both), because I hadn't thought I had posted recent
Althusserian remarks.  Perhaps I got confused on CC:'s again (as with an
embarrassing incident a while ago), but my saved version doesn't
indicate it.  Perhaps it's just one of those split-personality things,
and some hidden self is a still more fervent Althusserian than the one
currently writing :-).  However, under the assumption that Burford is
instead psychic in sensing my Althusserian thoughts of the last days, I'm
forwarding to the list a private letter I wrote to Rick Wolff, whose
recent joining of the list is most pleasant.  Since this conversation
stemmed from several posts on the list, perhaps its posting won't be
taken as merely self-conceit.

Yours, Lulu...

-------- Forwarded message --------
Date: Mon, 02 Jan 1995 14:26:40 -0500
From: quilty at (Lulu of the Lotus-Eaters)
To: Richard Wolff <rwolff at>
Subject: Productive labor and the Duhem-Quine Thesis

Hi Rick,

Well, I went away for a few days, and brought with me _Knowledge and
Class_ to make sure about my reaction to your below remarks (which I
just glanced at a few moments before I left).

*} There is no privileged basis for equating different
*} things. For sure, commodity markets enable an equation of differences by
*} using their common property as commodities...
*}    However, there are many other bases for making such equations of
*} different products of human labor [....] There are "n" ways of
*} founding such a distinction, where "n" is a large number. It is only
*} interesting which of the "n" possibilities a theorist uses, since each
*} has its own subsequent effects on how the analytical edifice rises.
*}	  Lastly, the necessary-surplus distinction is the act of the
*} theorist, it is not "found" lurking in the data of economies.

I certainly agree with the points of _K&C_ in terms of its definitions
of productive labor, and thereby the indirect insinuation of the meaning
of exploitation.  The framework of dominant (fundamental) and subsumed
class processes seems to be the only sensible approach IMO (I like the
word 'dominant' a bit better than your 'fundamental', but that's not
important).  Certainly classes must be understood as processes rather
than essential characteristics of individual persons.  Further, I was
almost scandalized to be reminded of the many Marxists who use what seem
like such vulgar notions of 'productive labor' -- either in a conflation
with 'productive consumption', or in an evaluation of the merit of the
labor or "true" membership in the working class.  All of that seems
quite wrong, both as a reading of Marx, and as a description of
"reality".  I think the notion of overdetermination is particularly
important vis. an example I used in my discussion with Schwartz:

    If two neighboring factories both make airplanes, one for resale,
    the other for direct use as private jets by the capitalist(s) who
    commissions the production, we have two sets of otherwise similar
    workers, the former exploited/productive, the second
    non-exploited/non-productive.  Or similarly, I work as a productive
    laborer as a "Kelly-Girl" (creating surplus value for Kelly), in the
    desks next to unproductive clerical workers hired directly by the
    company I'm sub-contracted to.  In these cases, the material
    conditions of work between productive and unproductive laborers is
    similar (the organization of the workspace, the physical tasks
    involved, etc), as are the wages and their social determinants
    (unionization, legal protections, the gendering and raceing of the
    workforce, etc), but insofar as one set of workers is exploited, and
    the other not, they belong to different class-processes.  Of course,
    under this conception, 'exploitation' has nothing to do, per se,
    with the compulsion involved in the work relation, nor with the
    "unfairness" of it. [paraphrase of my earlier conversation]

So on all that, I agree with _K&C_.  But I disagree with the kind of
non-historical Duhem-Quine thesis embodied in your above remarks.  I'm
certainly a thoroughgoing anti-realist in the sense that I don't think
that theory can be given "in the data themself".  As a theoretical
abstraction, a notion of "caloric exploitation" (i.e. a quantitative
comparison of calories produced vs. consumed by categories of workers),
or a Mandel/Schwartz comparison of direct labor-hours, is just as
self-consistent (and simple, etc) as is a Marxist "value exploitation."
But self-consistent abstractions are not equivalent in their
*expressive* relation to lived social objectivity.  The
historical-material form through which the possibility for an
abstraction of quantitative relation between labor(-power) inputs and
outputs manifests is quite specifically the commodity (value) form.  I
think this is the meaning of Marx's numerous remarks to the effect that
capitalism makes visible the hidden contradictions in previous forms of
society (with that silly "chain-of-being" metaphor about human and ape
physiology).  For example, Marx claims in several places that *suplus
value* is extracted in slave and peasant etc.  labor, but the reality of
this surplus value is always, as it were, only visible through the lens
of developed capitalist "free labor."

Although I do not think highly of Althusser's rigid science/ideology
dichotomy, I think his approach has some merit in this matter.
Different theoretical abstractions, although formally equivalent,
materially arise out of different characteristic class positions and
interests.  Marxism is proletarian science, in opposition to bourgeois
science, and hence its abstractions are those expressive of the social-
objective existence of the proletarian class.  This historical
objectivity certainly puts the equivalence of monied commodities
pragmatically prior to the equivalence of calories, or labor-hours, or
even of "utilities." While I don't think that this positional
theoretical abstraction thereby stops being a "mere" perspective (i.e.
it does not become the "reality itself"), it is nonetheless a
priviledged perspective amongst the possible ones.

Yours, Lulu...

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